Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life


Anxiety in Kids: The Skills to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

Anxiety is a normal response to something dangerous or stressful. It becomes a problem when it shows up at unexpected times and takes a particularly firm hold. When anxiety is in full swing, it feels awful. Awful enough that anticipation of the feeling is enough in itself to cause anxiety.

We already know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage or character. It picks a target and it switches on.

When that target is a child or teen, it can be particularly distressing, causing problems with sleeping, eating and missed school from unexplained illnesses such as sick tummies or headaches. 

One of the worst things about anxiety is the way it can happen without any identifiable cause. The physical feeling is familiar – that panicked feeling that comes when you miss a stair or as my daughter recently described, ‘that feeling you get when you’re almost asleep and you feel like you’re falling.’ (‘Yes, we’ve dealt with it in our home too. It’s under control now, so I can assure you this works.)

The good news is that anxiety in kids is very treatable and they are particularly responsive. I often think we don’t give them enough credit. They’re so open to possibility, and very quick to make the right connections when they’re given the right information and support. As the adult in their life, you’re the perfect one to give it.

Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Turning it Around 

  1. Don’t talk them out of it.

    As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with gentle comments in the way of, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ or ‘You’ll be fine’.

    This comes from the purest of intentions but it runs the risk of them feeling as though there’s something wrong with them. The truth is that when anxiety has a hold of them, they can no sooner stop worrying than fly to the moon. As much as they want to believe you, their brains just won’t let them.

    What they need to hear is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to articulate – and that’s okay. Then, ask if it’s ‘like that feeling you get when you miss a stair,’ (or ‘that feeling you get when you feel like you’re falling in your sleep’). Often, this in itself is such a relief because ‘someone gets it.’

  2. Normalise.

    Explain that:

    •. Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life – before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school.

    •  Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away. 

  3. Explain why anxiety feels like it does.

    Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There’s a reason for this, and understanding the reason is key to managing the anxiety.

    Here is a child-friendly explanation. I’ve used it for a variety of ages, but nobody knows your child like you do so adjust it to suit. 

    ‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.  

    It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. It’s job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.

    If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.

    If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all. 

    Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. It’s a doer not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe.

    If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.

    So when the amygdala senses a threat it floods your body with oxygen, adrenaline and hormones that your body can use to fuel its fight or flight. When this happens:

    ♦   Your breathing changes from normal slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Your body does this because your brain has told it to stop using up the oxygen for strong breaths and send it to the muscles to they can run or fight.

    When this happens you might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You also might feel the blood rush to your face and your face become warm.

    ♦    If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up and the carbon dioxide drops.

    This can make you feel dizzy or a bit confused.

    ♦   Your heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body.

    Your heart can feel like it’s racing and you might feel sick.

    ♦   Fuel gets sent to your arms (in case they need to fight) and your legs (in case they need to flee).

    Your arms and legs might tense up or your muscles might feel tight.

    ♦   Your body cools itself down (by sweating) so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee

    You might feel a bit sweaty.

    ♦   Your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs in case you have to fight or flee. (Don’t worry though – it won’t stay shut down for long.)

    You might feel like you have butterflies in your tummy. You might also feel sick, as though you’re going to vomit, and your mouth might feel a bit dry. 

    As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.’

  4. Explain how common anxiety is in adults and kids.

    About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety – so let them know that in their class, there’s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been through it before. Maybe they’re going through it right now.

  5. Give it a Name.

    ‘Now that you understand that your anxiety feelings come from the ‘heroic warrior’ part of your brain, let’s give it a name.’ Let your child pick the name and ask them what they think of when they picture it. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also demystifies their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless ‘thing’ that gets in their way, it’s something contained – with a name and a look. 

  6. Now Get Them Into Position.

    ‘The problem with anxiety is that [whatever their ‘heroic warrior’ is called – for the moment, let’s say, ‘Zep’] Zep is calling all the shots but we know that you’re really the boss. Zep actually thinks it’s protecting you, so what you need to do is let it know that you’ve got this and that it can relax. When you get those anxious feelings, that means Zep is taking over and getting ready to keep you safe. It doesn’t think about it at all – it just jumps in and goes for it. What you need to do is to let it know that you’re okay. 

    The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. It sounds so simple – and it is. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow and deep to quick and shallow. That type of breathing changes the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Once your breathing is under control, Zep will stop thinking he has to protect you and he’ll settle back down. Then, really quickly after that, you’ll stop feeling the way you do.’ 

  7. And breathe.

    Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold your breath just for a second between breathing in and breathing out. Make sure the breath is going right down into your belly – not just into your chest. You can tell because your belly will be moving. Do this about 5 to 10 times.

    Practice before bed every day. Remember that Zep, the warrior part of your brain, has been protecting you for your entire life so it might take a little bit of practice to convince Zep to relax. But keep practicing and you’ll be really good at it in no time. You and that warrior part of your brain will be buddies – but with you in control.

    One way to practice is by putting a soft toy on your child’s belly when they lie down. If the toy is moving up and down, their breathing is perfect. 

  8. Practice mindfulness.

    An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness.  MRI studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the brain, providing relief and protection from stress, anxiety and depression. See here for more information.

    Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Essentially, it’s being aware of the present moment. My daughter does 10 minutes before bed. 

    Start by explaining that anxiety comes about because of worry about the future and what might happen. Sometimes these thoughts happen in the background – we don’t even know they’re there. Mindfulness helps you to have control over your brain so you can stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to. It trains your brain to stay in the here and now. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. 

    It sounds easy enough but minds quite like to wander so staying in the moment can take some practice. Here’s the how:

    1. Close your eyes and notice your breathing. How does the air feel as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating. If your mind starts to wander, come back to this.
    2. Now, what can you hear? What can you feel outside of you and inside your body? If your mind starts to wander, focus on your breathing again. 

Remember that anxiety in kids is very treatable but it might take time. Explain to your child that his or her very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there’s trouble coming, doesn’t mean there is. Keep practising and they’ll get there. 

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.




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Hi, we are going through this with my daughter, it has been going on for nearly two years. She has just turned 12. She has always been quite confident, a hard worker at school she always works hard and achieves. If anything she always sets the bar very high for herself. Daytime is usually happy and fine, she is enjoying her first year of high school and has lots of friends and apart from the obvious changes suddenly being in an environment of older teens as well as growing and changing herself she seems happy. She has hit the point where she confides in my wife more than me but there doesn’t seem to be anything outside of our home and family life that is upsetting her. In February 2015 she had a run of colds and flu, she started developing bad headaches and migraines. At one point she was sick and started sleeping in our bed with my wife. The headaches became more of a problem and she spent more time in our bed while I slept in hers. This started to have an effect on the family and also my work. She was off school for nearly two months, we had seen specialists, one doctor basically told her to buck up and get on with it !! great!! We started seeing an osteopath who found she had slightly exaggerated bone growth in one of her vertebrae at the top of her neck, nothing major but it was possibly causing muscles in her neck to tense and in particular muscles that wrapped over the top of the head which is often where she complained the headaches began. We started to think it was some kind of tenseness brought on by stress which then caused the headaches and that is was just her body growing that was making it happen more now. So over time and treatments of massage she began to control the headaches a little more. By the summer she was more in control but still sleeping in our bed. Every time we tried to settle her back to her room it caused problems and she wouldn’t sleep and was tearful. If she got very upset it would trigger a migraine, so we were trapped, we wanted her in her own room but couldn’t get her to without getting upset and having a migraine. By christmas 2015 we decided to make efforts to encourage her back to her bed and redecorated her room and got her a nice new grown up bed, she loved it and was very excited. It had a pull out second bed that my wife could sleep on and then move back to our room. Every time she tried, my daughter would stir or wake up, since then she has developed night time routines that can take longer and longer to finish, she will sit on the edge of the bed with my wife trying to sleep next to her on the pull out mattress and she will cry for her. She wants to have the light on to sort out her hair before laying down, she has to arrange cushions, there are a few routines we have broken and after tantrums it has passed and she has moved on. But she can get inventive and suddenly something simple becomes a routine. We have tried to see a specialist therapist but we have no family near us and it is very difficult to arrange time to see her as she wants to see us first. We are currently still in this situation, some nights go quite well and she settles but it has affected our whole lives, everyone has to be ready for bed by 8pm, including me if I want a bath, as the bathroom is next to her room. I then try to catch up work in my office, but my wife and I have no time together to talk about our day or even how we’re going to handle this. My son is getting increasingly short patience with his sister, as she keeps him awake too. Most nights or at least alternate nights we have a bad episode and despite being in bed my wife, daughter and son will not get to sleep until 11pm or even midnight. So everyone is run down, exhausted, grumpy. My wife has been ill over the last few weeks and lack of sleep has hindered her recovery.
We are very supportive to our kids, we help them with their homework, we read to them every night and have tried to do the very best we can through this situation.
I have read through many stories on this topic and a lot of people seem to at least be able to settle their children enough to leave the room, this would be an absolute gift for us at the moment.
Any thoughts or suggestions would be extremely welcome.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Martin, first of all I want to say that you and your wife sound like wonderful parents – supportive and empathic and just what your daughter needs. I completely understand why her bedtime routine needs to be sorted out though. It sounds as though it is causing a bit of disruption for the whole family, and I imagine it also isn’t the way your daughter wants her night-times to run.

Here is an article which I think might have a useful strategy for you http://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. Take a look at number 6, the stepladder. This is a gentle way of introducing a new behaviour which is your case, would be getting your daughter to fall asleep in her own bed on her own. It’s really important that this isn’t rushed. It sounds like the bedtime issues have been there for a while, so they will take a while to let go of. One of the first things to move towards is not being there when she falls asleep, and I can see this something that’s causing trouble at the moment. The problem with being there when she falls asleep is that when she moves between cycles of sleep and gently stirs (as we all do) it can panic her to find that she is on her own, when there was someone there when she fell asleep. So – work through the stepladder with her. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as she is on board.

It will be important to stick to the same bed time each night so her body knows when to expect it. At 12, she is just starting to enter adolescence. Over the next little while, you might notice that she wants to stay up later. This is really normal for adolescence. Their sleep cycles start to change. The sleep hormone (the hormone the tells your body it’s time to start getting sleepy) doesn’t release until about 2 hours later than it does in the rest of us, so they tend not to get sleepy until 9, 10, 11 pm. It may be that 8pm is a little too early for her. Her body just might not be ready to settle then, so the battle will be harder because her brain will be telling her that it’s not time to settle yet. If you get a sense that that might be causing some trouble, if you can, try letting her stay up a little later (make it part of the deal with the stepladder).

Another thing to add to her bedtime routine is mindfulness. If she can do ten minutes of this before bed as part of her bedtime routine, it will be strengthening her brain against anxiety (here is an article that explains how that works http://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/) and helping her to settle. There are apps that can help with this. Smiling Mind is one. Smiling Mind was just used in a trial in Australian schools with some great results. Here is a link to the app https://smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app/.

Also, have a look at 2,3,4 and 9 (especially 4 – you can use it as part of the stepladder) in this article http://www.heysigmund.com/getting-kids-to-go-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep/.

I know how disruptive to everyone bedtime struggles can be. I hope these are able to help your family.


Hi Martin,

I have a 10 year old daughter who has just started this type of behaviour over the last two months. I have just began sessions with a child psychologist for her. I have been lost at what to do. She aswell has lots of friends, is in a few sports which she is extremely good at, most times achieving special achievement trophies etc, all the things that would make a child happy and boost their confidence, she’s an SRC at school, academically aswell she puts lots of effort in and aswell sets her targets very high. She does lots of socialising, and definatley nothing outside the family home upsetting her. The way it all started is she was planned to sleep over at a very close friends of ours, their daughter us 10 and have been best friends for years. I got a call from the mother saying she wasn’t feeling well in the stomach and wanted to come home, aswell she was crying. We took her home and the next day during the day was happy and wanted to return to her friends house saying she wanted to stay the night again. Come to the afternoon and we got a call she was crying again with pains in the stomach. So we picked her up and took her home. The following week at school I was calked 3 times saying she was unwell in the stomach shaking and crying, I took her to the doctors they did a blood test, urine test and aswell a stomach ultrasound. Everything returned as normal. The doctor wrote a mental health plan and sent it off to the psychologist. Since then she can’t hear any noise at night, complains daily of sore head and stomach and tells me she can’t get a song out of her head and worries ahead about everything, she has to be always in close contact with myself and aswell as I write this is in my bed, complaining that she can’t sleep and her mind is over thinking. The whole house has to go onto lock down by a certain time because she can’t sleep with one ounce of noise. She continues to have the school call me and can’t focus in class as she has feelings of worry for lots of different things which she herself can’t explain. – she constantly tells me that she can’t get songs out of her head that make her feel sad. And she cries a lot all the time. I’m at a loss with what to do, she’s changing slowly becoming more withdrawn and worries about catch ups and socialising with her friends like she doesn’t want to. I have been told she may suffer anxiety, could you advise of anything you have found helpful for your daughter the rearranging of the room sounded great besides we are living at my brothers ATM and we are unable to do this, she also sleeps in a room with my other younger daughter and can’t sleep near her tells us that she makes too much noise when she’s sleeping. If there’s anything you know that could help would be great anything you may have found out. It hasn’t been two years for us and we are feeling the affects. Kindest regards Joanna

Anya Boynton

I’m so sorry you’re going through this! It sounds like your daughter may have what my son has PANDAS. It’s completely treatable through diet.

Janet Raddatz

I disagree that pandas is completely treatable through diet. Perhaps for some if food is causing inflammation or is the trigger. We worked at length through diet changes but my older pandas only responds to antibiotics (specifically azithromycin). Diet is an important part but the treatment guidelines listed through the US National Institute for Mental Health are equally important to consider.

Anna Mertz

Your daughter sounds like me when I was younger… I had OCD as a child but hid it very well and didn’t want to talk about it, so no one really caught on. Bless her heart.


Im desperate for some help with my 6yr old girl who is terrified of any alarm or loud noises. She freezes and cries and you can see the terror in ger face. My husband and i are desperate to know how to deal with this as nothing we are doing is working. We remain calm try to talk her through it but she says shes fine now but we know shes not. She know is scared of most loud sounds and it was only alarms at first. Please help us.


Jemma, try looking into sensory processing instead of fears and anxiety. My son was exactly the same way when he was your daughter’s age. With the help of an occupational therapist who understood sensory processing deficits, we were able to help him through that stage of his life. He is able to manage loud and unexpected noises much better now.


Does your daughter have difficulty with auditory processing? Sounds can be amplified and unbearable. Movement and exercise help with this.


I would suggest looking into other medical causes. Another commenter mentioned PANDAS. I would suggest an alternative health practitioner familiar with the condition and others like it, or a PANDAS / PANS expert.

Janet Raddatz

Martin – have you heard of p.a.n.d.a.s. Whenever I hear of sickness followed by separation anxiety, ocd behaviour (the specific laying out of her pillows, hair, etc) and generally a sudden change in behaviour, that could be it – it was for my two sons. Google ‘p.a.n.d.a.s.’ and you will see descriptions, etc. I’ll bet your own family doctor has never heard of it – mine had not – but it is an underlying cause of many so called “mental illnesses”.


Hello. I read this article as one of my children suffers with anxiety and I am always keen to read about ways to deal with it. After tonsillitis last Feb my daughter’s behaviour changed dramatically. Her anxiety became very pronounced – particularly her separation anxiety. When she was away from me in the day she was ok (after initial difficulties leaving me). Her behaviour at home however became very difficult and it was tricky for us all as a family. Sleep was particularly affected. She didn’t want to be in a room on her own – she has slept with either my husband or I for nearly a year. She couldn’t get to sleep and was a very light sleeper. She was sleepwalking; she looked exhausted and she got very (VERY) upset easily. It was very isolating for us all as this extreme anxiety made it difficult for us to behave normally as a family. But we have come through the other side. Thankfully due to the most amazing doctor we know – she has been treated for PANDAS. She is on a constant dose of antibiotics and has been for 8 months. It took a long time for it to settle down but it has. She is sleeping on her own again. She is going to sleep. She is happy.


Of course this only works when there is no real threat, otherwise, the amygdala will remain active.


My happy-go-lucky 5 year daughter LOVED going to school…until she fell going up the stairs to the slide on the playground last monday. She scrapped her shin, it bled, she cried & went to the nurse for a bandage. She wouldn’t let us remove the giant bandage to access the damage because it would hurt to pull off her skin due to the stickiness of the band-aid. That night she talked about not wanting to go to school the next day for fear it will hurt when she runs. I ignored her pleas and told her she was going to school no matter what. The next morning she was so anxious, her tummy was hurting and she started to panic so we let her stay home. I feel like that was a huge mistake. she was fine once she knew she was staying home. That night again she worried about going to school the next day. Wednesday morning came around and was a repeat of the morning before. But we made her go to school. Her concerns are this…I don’t want people to ask me if I’m ok (because of the tears in her eyes for having to be at school), she’s worried about falling again & she doesn’t want to participate in PE. We asked the PE teacher to allow her to sit out (again, probably another mistake). Thursday came & another repeat of every morning thus far. This time she said her tummy felt sick & not anxious like it did the other days so I worried she could have a tummy bug (tis the season) so I let her stay home. But as soon as she knew she wasn’t going to school, she was fine. Friday came, another episode, but we made her go to school. Everyday she comes home she says her days have been good. We just finished the weekend where she did great at home & anywhere we went. This morning came & she had a more severe reaction then before doubling over saying her belly hurts & saying “I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this”. I’ve tried reaching out to the counselor but haven’t heard back. I’m just not sure how I should be handling this at home. Any advice would be great!

Karen - Hey Sigmund

It can be so difficult to know what to do when our little people seem to be not well, and are struggling to make it to school. It’s really understandable that your daughter is worried about going back to school. It might take her time to feel okay about going back, and that’s okay. Talk with her about her anxiety so that she can have some understanding of what is causing her sick tummy and her worries. Let her know that it’s really normal for people to be worried about going back into a situation in which they have previously themselves. If you can talk to her about a time this happened for you, that would also be reassuring for her.

She’s still young and she’s still understanding her big feelings, and how to manage them when they happen. If you can start to explain that just because she feels scared, and is thinking scary thoughts (I might hurt myself again), she can act brave. Thoughts, feelings and behaviour don’t have to match. This is an important lesson for kids to learn, and it can take a while for them to understand. Let her know that when she thinks she can’t do it, it’s the ‘fierce warrior’ part of her brain trying to protect her, even though she doesn’t need protecting. When she feels this, strong deep breathing is a way to be the boss of her worried brain again and stop it from feeling so anxious (it actually calms the nervous system and will start to neutralise her fight or flight response). You might need to encourage her to practice her strong, deep breathing when she is calm so she can find it easier to do when she is anxious. Here is another article that might help http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/.


Wow Valerie that literally sounds like my story, my daughter was 7, now been going on for 3 months and seems to be getting worse, I’ll sort one problem for her to then find another, it’s horrible and seems like the impossible task


My 13 yr old son keeps telling me almost everyday that he feels sick. I think it’s anxiety but he doesn’t because he said it happens when he doesn’t feel anxious. I told him people can still have anxiety when they have nothing to be anxious about. He gets nauseous and dizzy and shaky a lot, so I don’t know but it’s got to be anxiety, right? He also has headaches often. He thinks he needs to eat something everytime but most of the time he already has.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Heather the symptoms you are describing certainly sound like anxiety. Anxiety can feel so strong when it hits, that it can be hard to believe it happens for no reason – that’s one of the awful things about anxiety. If your son feels as though eating something is right for him, this is a great thing – it means that he may have found a way to self-soothe and feel better, even if he doesn’t see it that way. Here is an article specifically for teens with anxiety http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. It helps to explain what’s happening in their brains and what they can do to help protect themselves against anxiety. Hope it helps.


Great article. Thank you. Can you elaborate on the following though because I think it’s important to understand:

…Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all. …

Why would that happen? There must be something that triggers the amygdala. Why else would it become active? Assuming something “scares” a child e.g. presenting in front of class, writing a test, ….

I think it would be helpful to explain to a child why it is feeling this way although there is no danger really.

Could it be that the amygdala overreacts to something that causes the child to feel anxious about?

Karen - Hey Sigmund

An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain, but one that is a little overprotective. This might happen for all sorts of reasons – perhaps because of a memory that generalises and creates anxiety about unrelated events, there might be anxiety about the anxiety (worried about feeling the physical feelings that come with anxiety – racey heart, sick tummy etc) or the intrusion of ‘what-ifs’ (e.g. ‘what if you forget to pick me up from school’/ ‘what if something happens to you while I’m at school?’). Sometimes it might not be clear what the anxiety is about. This might be because the reasons are out of awareness, or because the child doesn’t have a clear handle on them. The the point is that even though it feels as though there is something to be worried about, this doesn’t mean that there is. Here is an article that might help to explain things a bit more http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-why-the-worry/. Hope this clears thing up a little more for you.


I am not a professional expert, but I have gained experience with this issue because we as a family have lived this issue for ten years now. Our oldest daughter is 24 years old and began having these issues her 8th grade year after having a bladder infection that caused her to lose continence during a math class. We didn’t connect the dots at the time, but hind sight now tells me that was a catalyst for it.

Her headaches and dizziness has completely incapacitated her two different times in our lives. She has been wheelchair bound, has appeared mentally challenged, and it has reaked havoc on her eating habits. We went to many neurologist and children’s hospitals and even Mayo clinic nine years ago in search of help, but to no avail-big waste of time and money, but I know as a parent you feel so helpless and everyone around you think they have the answer with “their” doctor and you jump in hopes that they will have the answer, but nothing has helped. She continues to see a therapist, but her father and I don’t think that is helping either, but she does so we let her go. She currently, is managing, but we just had an “episode” (that’s what we call them now) and she doesn’t even remember it happened. We are sure anxiety brought it on because we were at an amusement park and she is very large and was unable to buckle for the ride so had to get off and that is just the kind of thing to trigger anxiety.

Our youngest is 17 and showing some of the same signs, so we definately think there is some sort of genetic connection, but neither her father or I suffer, but somewhere in our combined DNA it helps fuel the issue. Her issues has manifested itself through sleep problems. Just like another individual in the comments, our daughter has had issues sleeping in her bed. Nobody can touch her bed and she has to take a shower right before she goes to bed, she wipes her feet with paper towels before getting into her bed.

I have recently become a believer that diet plays a huge role, but unfortunately our girls are both old enough that they have more control on their diet then I do and their diet choices are awful, so until they choose to make changes, our suffering probably isn’t going to change, but if I had to do things over again when our daughter was 12, I definately would “clean” out our dietary components, but no one gave us that advise and at first we feared she was dying or leaving us a “normal” child from some abnormal disease, so I let her do and eat whatever she wanted just to experience some fun and joy—BIG MISTAKE!!!!

I would love to be able to share some “magic bullet” that has worked for us, but unfortunately I have not found it and believe me, we have searched. Stress and anxiety are definately a part of life, but unfortunately in our children’s lives they have been like an uncurable disesase that no one sees or believes. I feel everyones pain and I ache for you. The journey is long and hard and it definately will have lasting affects on your family. Thankfully my husband and I have weathered the storm, but hold on, the ride is rough!!!


Nadeen, my heart aches for you and what you have endured. I relate to your story in so many ways. My son 13years has had sleeping issues till he turned 8 years and has to have a shower every night. He will not allow anything to be put in his room all he has is a bed and everything we have tried to introduce to his room is now very secure in his cupboard. Since he was 2 we have had to cater for strange routines to save the challenge of a tantrum. We have recently cut out certain routines of eating chips and nuggets after swimming to eating eggs on toast at home, this has been great. At one stage over a period of 5 years we were eating at a local cafe twice if not three times a week, this I have also managed to completely turn around with great effort. I have taken your advice on the dietary bit and will endeavour to be very careful in future. Stress and anxiety are playing a role in our life and family relationships are being tested.


My daughter just turned 9. All of a sudden, she is making herself sick at bedtime. When I ask what is going on, she says she feels weird. With more prying, it seems that she is thinking about throwing up to the point it is almost making her sick. She’s shaking and nauseous, head over a trash can. The first time it happened, the boy she sits next to at school was feeling sick all day, which made her feel sick. Now, it’s happening on a nightly basis, but nothing has happened during the day. She’s fine all day, then at bedtime, she starts in again. Should she see a child psychologist? We can’t go through this every night.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Carrie it sounds as though your daughter may be getting anxious at bedtime. The memory of how she felt the night before will be enough to trigger the memory and the feelings. Talk to her about what might be happening using the strategies in the article. Speak to her about why it’s important for her to take strong, deep breaths when she gets the feeling that she is going to vomit (it will calm her nervous system). The information will help her to understand what it happening, and will help to make the physical feelings less scary for her.


Very interesting article. It helps to explain things by phrasing it as a part of your brain that thinks that there’s something it needs to protect you from.

I have a 14 year old daughter in middle school who was diagnosed with ADHD back in 1st grade. We have tried to be proactive in her treatment to try and prevent any issues as she grew but it has been a struggle. We have been to different doctors and therapists over the years with limited success. She has shown some signs of nervousness in elementary school and difficulty making friends. Therapists have discounted it as being an introvert but once she started middle school I have seen an increase in anxiety and behaviors that go beyond just being an introvert. She has withdrawn from us as a family unit and has opted out of doing some family activities like going out to eat or the movies or watching a movie with us at home. She refuses to sit on the couch as if it is disgusting and will sometimes put a couch pillow on the kitchen or dining room chair so that she is not directly sitting on the chair. Often she will refuse to sit even at dinner time. She spends a lot of time in her room and is not motivated to contact friends. She appears to have some inconsistent germophobe issues which has led to the extreme of wearing Ziploc bags on her hands to frequently washing her hands. But at other times she will run her fingers in dust or draw pictures on the dirty car window and seem to be fine. She has developed some food issues too where she stopped bringing lunch to school but she also will not eat the school lunch unless it is a particular item. She has placed restrictions on what she is willing to eat in a restaurant. She went from doing the traditional hamburger, pizza, chicken fingers to saying that she is not hungry or only wanting to eat chips and salsa. She has developed curly hair as she got older which she hates but she is resistant to getting her hair cut for fear that it will make her hair even curlier so it has been over a year since her last hair cut and she freaks out at the mention of going to a hairdresser. When she was younger you could take her to the hairdresser with no issues. Now she refuses and says that it is her hair. But is it really getting long (not at her but yet but in 1 year it will be) and the more hair she has, the more she has to take care of. She has also developed a strange association with clothing. She has limited her tolerance for clothes to wearing only 3 pairs of yoga type pants and a few t-shirts. The other clothes she hides in the bottom of her clothes hamper. As soon as she gets home from school she gets undressed and wears an oversized t-shirt that she uses as a nightgown. On weekends it we do not go out she does not even bother to get dressed. She will only tell you that she does it for comfort. She always has the door closed and yells at us when we ask her to come out to talk. When we do try to talk to her she either yells or tries to leave the room especially when it is a topics like school or chores or personal hygiene. She freaks out if we need to go in her room and there have been times that if we have knocked on her door because she did not answer us, she later obsessively cleans her door because we touched the door. We have had to hide the cleaner bottles or pledge because she has gone thru entire bottles in 1 day.
One of the big problems is that she is a teenager and thru school has been educated on disabilities such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, etc. But instead of this making her more aware of her own situation, it has made her more resistant to accepting help or other treatments. She does not give any feedback to her therapist and says that everything is fine and she even tries to convince her therapist that I am saying that there is something wrong with her and she asks her therapist to tell me that she is ok. She does not give any feedback to the NP who administers her ADHD meds and I fear that she would be resistant in taking a pill for anxiety. She hates it when people imply that she is anxious or nervous. So in some ways she may be getting in her own way for proper treatment. Many times I have wanted to throw in the towel but I keep feeling that there is something out there that will help her. I have 4 more years to help her prepare for life after high school with hopes that things can get better for her so she can become successful and happy. I just met with her pediatrician and she said that it sounds like her anxiety is causing my daughter to put up walls and the longer it continues the more walls she will put up. She recommended seeing the adolescent medicine group at one of the major hospitals near us in order to have a combined approach to her treatment but with one doctor who will be a main contact person who will work with a team to help treat the ADHD, anxiety, meds, food issues and therapy. I’ve been looking for this kind of approach for a while now. I have an appointment sent up for March so wish me luck. I do want my daughter to be on the path to become a happy and healthy adult.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though you are a wonderful support for your daughter. She is at an age where it is becomes so important not to feel different. This may be influencing your daughter to reject any support around her anxiety and to put up the walls – she doesn’t want there to be anything about her that stands out, or that makes her feel different to her peers. This is really normal during adolescence.

The behaviours you describe are consistent with anxiety, but one of the problems with anxiety is that it can feel as though there is such a negative focus. This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just that by working really hard to support kids with anxiety, it can mean that the focus is often more on the negatives than on what’s right. What’s important is that kids with anxiety also realise that they have so many positives, not despite their anxious brain but because of it. Of course they would rather not have anxiety, but as with so many of the things about ourselves that we would prefer weren’t there, it also come with strengths. The more your daughter feels the need to reject her anxiety, the more anxious she may become. Anxiety is triggered whenever the brain thinks that there might be threat, so it’s understandable that it may be triggered by the threat of anxiety (anxiety about the anxiety) or by the threat of people realising that there is something ‘different’ about her. It’s very normal for teens to become so self-conscious, and so focussed on and worried about what other people are thinking. There’s nothing wrong with this and it isn’t something that needs to be fixed. It’s actually an important part of their development and it happens to support their transition from dependence on the family to independence, which to some extent will rely on feeling some sort of connection with peers. It’s just important to be aware of the level of self-consciousness they might be feeling and the impact this might have on their behaviour.

During adolescence, it’s also not unusual for kids to start to pull away from their families. One of the main developmental goals of adolescence is to establish independence from the family. For some adolescents, this can come out as a massive push against the family. Sometimes, the closer a child was to a parent when they were younger, the harder the push will be. It’s normal and it’s okay and doesn’t need to be fixed. They come back again when they have established their independence, but it might take a few years. Here is an article that will explain some of things going on for your daughter (because of adolescence) that will hopefully give a little more context to the behaviours you are seeing http://www.heysigmund.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-adolescent-brai/

For a while, try focussing on the positive and unique things about her. Here is an article that talks about the positives that can come with an ‘anxious brain’. It might give you some ideas on where to shift the focus http://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/. It’s pitched at younger kids, but it’s still relevant for all ages. What we focus on is what becomes powerful, so if you can, try to switch the focus from her anxiety and what needs to change, to the positives. I know this can be difficult, because it’s also important to nurture her in the right direction and point out when things need changing, but if this isn’t working, it’s time to try a different approach.

Here is another article about teens and anxiety and the things they can do to strengthen their brain against anxiety http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. I hope this helps. It’s also not unusual for anxiety to get worse during adolescence for a while. Anything skills your daughter can learn to strengthen herself against anxiety (explained in the article) will hold her strong moving forward. They are great skills and practices for any adolescent – anxiety or no anxiety, so maybe don’t suggest it as a way to manage her anxiety, but as a way to feel stronger and happier generally. It sounds as though she is in very wonderful hands with you and the team of specialists.


My husband and I are very conscious about trying to emphasize the positives whenever we can. I am almost becoming over conscious when ever I have to bring up something negative to my daughter and I dread doing it but unfortunately as she is trying to deal with the her life since she hit the middle school years, she still needs to be held accountable for school work and things like personal hygiene and doing chores. We tell her good job when she gets anything over a 70% but there are times when we need to address when any assignments are missing or late or when she gets a failing grade. She was at the point that we could not get her to take a shower or brush her teeth. Her therapist has me doing a personal hygiene chart for her and she is doing it because she is very prize motivated but it kills me that I am paying her an allowance of sort to do something that she should want to do for herself. But I am doing it. At times we are in a no win situation. She isolates herself from us and stays in her room with the door locked for the majority of the time that she is home, only coming out for short periods of time to eat. That really limits the opportunities to have conversations with her so we can use positive feedback with her. She has no hobbies or activities that she participates in that we can give her praise for. She looks to her tablet for company. She has a friend in school but needs strong encouragement to call her to make plans otherwise she makes no attempt to have friendships. She often only thinks that we are being negative so she does not pay attention to the times that we give her praise. But we cannot ignore the issues that need to be addressed because she does need to get thru school and to take care of her body. We always feel like we are summoning her from her bedroom because she is never in the common areas of the house to have spontaneous conversations. We’ll never know how she is feeling about different issues because she does not talk about it and she does not reveal anything to her therapist. I would be feeling more ok with the situation if she had some peers that she were connecting with but that is not really happening.


I had to respond to you because we have gone through similar with our daughter. She has been diagnosed with OCD which is an anxiety disorder. Jr high was so crazy because we didn’t know what was going on. In her freshman year we took her to a psychiatrist who enlightened us. She went through a program to help with the OCD issues. She is on anti anxiety meds. Which help to certain extent. The two most helpful things were: One, the Dr. ordered thorough testing at the Hospital for her shortness of breath. It was determined that there was no physical problem. This was a huge comfort to my daughter to know it was anxiety and she wasn’t going to die.
The second most helpful thing was to learn that my daughter is NOT her OCD. She is a kind, smart, beautiful person. We notice this and remark on this. This is not based on what she achieves just who she is.
It’s great that she goes to therapy, but it may be helpful for you all to go to someone who specializes in anxiety disorders and can help you understand what is happening to her. She may not want to socialize because she feels so out of control and doesn’t want her peers to know. I wish you all the best on this road to understanding. You are not alone.


I wish I had read this when I was younger. I’ve had several bouts of anxiety — panic attacks when out are not fun! My son is a very anxious child as well; definitely going to use this with him.


Hello, my 3 year old daughter has always been a great sleeper , she’s slept all night from 2 months old and she sleeps from about 9:30 pm to 10 am everyday (if I let her, she goes to preschool so she usually gets up at 8:30) for the past 2 months she has been saying there is monsters in her room. She fights us on going to sleep saying she’s scared, she’s slept in a big girl bed with no problems since she was 2 . We have 2 sounds machines, a lamp, a Ana and Elsa night light and ceiling projector which she knows how to use all of them. We put her to bed and sometimes she is already asleep and she immediately goes over and turns her bedroom light on . Then she falls asleep again, we go in a few times and shut it off and every time we do she wakes up within the hour and turns it back on. At first I thought it was a phase with the monsters I feel like all kids go they that but it’s starting to affect her sleep health and I don’t know what to do to help her. I have always had really bad anxiety as well as OCD. My dad traveled my whole life so I slept in my parents bed with my mom until I was 7 . They put a tv in my bedroom and I was finally able to sleep in my own room almost every night .. My husband and I have always slept with the Tv on, I’ve always been terrified of the dark. I just don’t know if this is something I have created in her or not and how to help her

Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s not at all unusual for kids your daughter’s age to be scared of the dark. It sounds as though this is really starting to get in the way though. If she has noticed that you always have some sort of light (from the tv) it’s understandable that sleeping in the dark might not feel normal to her. This is okay – it’s something you can work with. Here is an article with some ideas you might be able to try.

All of us go through sleep cycles during the night. When we’re cycling out of deep sleep, we’ll start to drift into lighter sleep, but most of us don’t wake up completely or if we do, we can put ourselves back to sleep very quickly. Sometimes so quickly that we won’t even remember waking up. If you can, try to have the room when she falls asleep as close to what it will be during the night if she wakes up. Tather than staying asleep or putting herself back to sleep before she wakes up too much during the night (as she comes out of a sleep cycle), she’s waking up completely to put the room back to the way it was when she fell asleep. The trick will be getting her to fall asleep in the room when it is a little darker. As she gets older, there will be more ways to deal with this (the stepladder approach in the article I’ve linked to will be good to try when she is able to work with you on it), but in the meantime anything you can do to bring the environment she falls asleep in closer to the way it will be when she wakes up might be helpful. Here is another article that might have some ideas http://www.heysigmund.com/getting-kids-to-go-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep/. Other things to try might be having a softer night light she can leave on all night, or changing the bulb in the big bedroom light to be less brighter so she can leave it on all night. Obviously this will make it difficult to do things in her room at night because it won’t be well lit, but it might be a way to get her into the habit. If you do try something, be patient. It can take a while to undo a sleep habit and create a new one. It doesn’t have to happen all at once though, and any progress will be good progress.

Barbara Lynn

My 14 year old girl has social anxiety, has had all of her life, but the last month she has physically been unable to go to school through anxiety attacks. The last month she has become worse, she admits to not liking herself, hating her body. I have been doing some research and she shows signs of Autism. Do you have any advice on this please?

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Unfortunately I don’t have any information on this, but if you’re worried, it would certainly be best to speak with a doctor or therapist for advice. The symptoms you have described don’t point to autism, but a doctor or therapist will be able to do a proper assessment and see what might be happening.


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